How a trans woman from Oakland and a Colombian immigrant made instant magic. Watch the video premiere of "Better" exclusively on Noisey.
Photos by Eddie Chacon
In the three weeks since Soto Voce's "Better" appeared out of the Soundcloud ether, the debut single from the unknown LA-by-way-of-Oakland duo has earned blogosphere hype and more than 30,000 plays, and with good reason. The brooding cut doesn't fit neatly in any categorical box—Sade-fronting-Radiohead comparisons are inevitable, but reductive—and for Soto Voce, that's the point.
Kenny Soto and Miguel De Vivo first met two years ago, not long after Soto relocated from her native Oakland. The two immediately bonded over mutual musical interests (the electro and industrial vibes girding "Better" among them), and their respective experiences as outsiders. Soto, who was born male, came up in the inner city, where she was taunted and beaten for "being like a girl" and changed schools a dozen times before high school.
"I remember being five or six and knowing I was going to a new school tomorrow, and I would pray two things, before I even knew what gay was: That they wouldn’t call me gay, and that I wouldn't get beat up," Soto says. "But usually those were the two things that would happen the first break or lunch time situation."
De Vivo, meanwhile, fled his native Colombia with his family as a teenager in the 90s, after his port official father refused to collaborate with Pablo Escobar's cartel.
"It was either you participated or you were shunned out and in the outskirts," De Vivo explains. "We were really broke when we got to the States. We came with nothing we were living in an apartment with ten cousins. It took a year before I wasn’t sharing a living room space with my five cousins and brother and sisters, so it’s something that I absolutely respect of my father to stand up for his own morals."
Today, both channel their experiences into tracks like "Better," and the alternatingly disquieting and resilient pop of their forthcoming self-titled EP, due out this fall on French indie Oskar. The six-song collection dabbles in everything from 80s pop to new wave to R&B, and Soto's voice proves just as versatile, turning from sensual to distorted and aggressive.
The two recently stopped by the VICE LA office to talk about the new EP, identity, and the politically charged Tyler Oliver-directed music video for "Better," which premieres today exclusively on Noisey below.
NOISEY: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what the project is.
Kenny Soto: I think in our music there’s a lot of turmoil and a lot more darkness than you hear in contemporary music right now. I think the vibration of it and the subject matter is a little bit different than the alternative stuff or pop we’re hearing currently. We both have a lot of similar interests. We both love 80s dark new wave stuff and 90s industrial music. On a mentality level, we both shared the same vision in trying to keep the integrity of the music and the art.
Talk more about that subject matter. Where does that darkness come from and what’s that about?
Soto: A lot of it for me has to do with my past growing up in Oakland. I’m originally from the hood, or a more urban area, and my own gender identity now—or maybe crisis, previously—and the stuff that I went through in regards to that and race have a lot of driving force in our music, and just how I fit into just mainstream society.
Being a gender non-conforming boy who sees himself as a little girl in Oakland, California was turbulent, to say the least. I learned how to fist fight at an early age, getting jumped. I probably went to 12 different schools before I got to high school, so that was interesting. I was already getting beat up at home. I had a lot of cousins, and the kids in my neighborhood and every school I went to would call me out and say, "You act like a girl," or "You look like a girl." And my mother, bless her heart, was worried about my safety all the time. She starting cutting my hair really early in school and wouldn't let me grow my hair out. I’d be getting beat up so much I would end up manifesting or becoming friends with some guy who was the biggest bully at the school, and he’d kind of be my protector, but then that type of friend would always try to make me become a boy, or make me more masculine. Me trying to learn how to be a "regular guy" never worked.
How have your respective backgrounds and experiences made an impact on your sound?
Soto: My parents were separated since I was three. I'd spend every summer with my father in Souther California. He married a German lady, and my step sisters were 16, listening to all the new wave stuff, 90s industrial stuff, so I was getting that in addition to the musical influences of Oakland like 2pac, Mac Mall, and all these other gangster rappers from out there, and R&B artists like En Vogue. As a child I grew up loving Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, so they’re also a big influence in the persona musically that I always saw for myself.
Miguel De Vivo: Growing up in Colombia, everything that’s locally cultural there is Spanish—merengue, salsa, vayonato. I also had the influence of my mom and my brother, whose tastes have been extremely European and American influenced. So before I knew anything about American music, I was already listening to The Doors and New Order. It was always coming from everywhere, and it’s continued that way to this day. I think that’s been a theme for both of us, that we’re just really open to anything we connect to.
Soto: In the last year or so I've really come to terms with my own gender journey, and musically, I’ve come to a new place where I just feel more complete and less that I’m running, searching for something. I think that’s something that both of us are kind of coming to because we went through a lot of turmoils in the midst of going after our dreams, just personal stuff like that, and a lot of that is in that song. There’s also a lot of aggression in my music. I think that even though I was born male and I feel more female, at the same time I’m very aggressive, and I have a lot of angst that comes out in the music that we do. That’s a lot of the darkness as well. It’s a rebel type of attitude, and I think that energy spoke to Miguel as well.
De Vivo: We started peeling off the layers of what we were coming into individually and as a group, so I think that’s one of the main things that bonded us through this music. Maybe not coming from the exact same backgrounds, but I think the same emotional reaction to the world has been one of the main contributing factors.
Let's talk about “Better”—what was the process of writing that song?
Soto: In regards to that song I was going through my journey, life, gender, and also at that point I was having issues in regards to relationships and a person I had fallen for who didn’t feel the same way for me. That song was coming to grips with that situation, and just the rejection from society in general, and me deciding that even in the midst of that, I was still going to preserve and be positive. I wanted to put out a different message, or another option, and I fought very hard for that, and that’s also part of the song—wanting to be happy for myself regardless of being accepted by my mother, a lover, or a potential lover. Just myself. Because if I have to prove something to you, then I obviously don’t believe it enough in my own self.
The music industry hasn't historically been a totally welcoming space for trans artists or for those who don't identify with a gender binary. Especially with new acts, and in pop, it seems like there's pressure to have a certain amount of success first. Can you talk a little bit about making the decision to debut yourself in transition?
Soto: I don’t think there’s ever a totally safe time, but I’m not a person that’s safe at all. I’m not from an environment that’s been safe, so in my mind I’ve never thought that way. A lot of people are always like, "You’re so strong." I see myself as being sensitive. I was very much the type of person that, I love the color pink, and I loved it so much that I was willing to fight for it. I think that’s something in my personality that comes through my music. As far as apprehension, it’s been from other people, and that’s always been throughout my life—other people being worried or afraid and me I’m not really at all in that regard.
Tell me about the music video and how it came together. It features some pretty intense imagery.
Soto: In the video, I’m visualising some really dark images, or maybe they’re being broadcasted to me. It depends on your perception. I’m watching people being desecrated and killed, crosses being burned. There comes a point when the car stops and Miguel steps out to open the door. I’m handcuffed, and he pushes me into a grave, and I come out on the other side another version of myself. For us the Black Lives Matter stuff, of course that's something that becomes relevant [now], and it wasn’t necessarily we made it for that in any way. But it obviously is relevant to the current , and culture in general. Then the gender stuff as well, and both of those things kind of tie in and maybe being seen as worthless.
Especially in pop, it feels like artists tend to shy away from confronting or speaking out directly about what’s going on socially or politically right now in their music. Why do you think that is?
Soto: I think people feel the way [I do], but they already feel privileged in a way where they don’t want to step out of that situation. Whereas for me, in this stage of my life and how I feel about art and situations that are currently going on, the privilege or the safety really isn’t a concern for me. Maybe I should be, but I’m sure other people feel the same way. I think music is diluted in a way, or rather what we want it to be, in a way.
Do you hopeful about the future right now? It’s a very weird time.
De Vivo: I don’t think anything just gets consistently better. I think it’s a very slow up and down that is still moving upwards. You have to have those lows in order to get upward movement, that’s the way it’s always been. If you step back and look at the bigger picture you can see that progression is upwards.
Tell me more about some of your other songs and what’s next in general. What we can expect from you?
Soto: All of our songs are honest, but it’s the complexity of a human being. Sometimes you're tired, sometimes you’re ready to party, or you’re feeling political. You saw something that’s unjust, and you want to take on the world. I think artists sometimes want to stay safe. We’re not safe in the music. The next song we’ll release will probably be so opposite, very aggressive and in your face. It’s an honest song, but it’s sexual, it’s not in the same tone, but it's what led to "Better." So it’s kind of like a movie where you’re going from scene to scene or listening to a DJ. The songs don’t all sound the same or have the same message, but it flows.
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.